Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) represents for many African Americans an unjustified surrender to racism and inequality, an embarrassing “Uncle Tom” philosophy. On the other hand, there are those who believe that relative to the times in which he was living, and the objective circumstances African Americans faced, his advice to his people to be realistic and stress pragmatism over principle in the short run was justified, or at least understandable.
Booker Taliaferro was born in Virginia, the child of a white father and African American mother. Though he was half white, as was the practice at the time he was treated as African American, meaning he was born a slave. After he and his family were emancipated as a result of the Civil War and moved to West Virginia, he prevailed upon his stepfather to allow him to go to school part time, in exchange for working extra hours in the mornings and evenings in the local salt mines. On his first day at school, the children were asked their full names, but he never knew himself to have any name other than “Booker.” So when it came his turn, he just made up “Washington,” which is what his name remained in the school records. When he found out his actual last name from his family, he took to calling himself Booker Taliaferro Washington, then shortened it to simply Booker T. Washington.
Washington worked his way up from the bottom, to put it mildly. He heard about an all-black college in Hampton, Virginia called Hampton Institute, and it became his dream to attend. He scraped together enough money to make it part of the way there, sleeping outdoors along the way, and then begged work of any kind, eventually getting enough funds for the rest of the journey. Hampton agreed to admit the penniless and homeless Washington, and gave him a job as a janitor to pay his way.
Hampton was more of a vocational school than an academic college. Washington did fine there, as he was a tireless worker and learner, willing to do anything and everything to achieve his goals.
He decided he wanted to go on to a more academic environment, so after Hampton he attended Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., another all-black institution. He became disillusioned with Wayland however, and decided that Hampton had the better idea after all. What African Americans-who were nearly all illiterate sharecroppers at this time-needed most, he believed was practical and vocational skills, not the kind of book learning that made them feel superior to and separate from the rest of their race.
In 1881, at age 25, Washington was recommended by the President of Hampton Institute to be the first President of the new all-black Tuskegee Institute (full name Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, later Tuskegee University) in Alabama, a position which he did indeed receive, and which he remained in for the rest of his life.
Under Washington, Tuskegee Institute’s mission was to function as a teacher’s college that would produce men and women qualified to teach practical skills to African Americans to make them more efficient farmers and tradesmen. Non-vocational academics were not eliminated entirely, but the emphasis was very much on training people to be able to teach African Americans to be useful workers who could economically support themselves and their families.
Washington made a decision early on to seek cooperation rather than confrontation with the white establishment in the South. He was under no illusions about the horrific racial injustice of his society, but he felt that challenging it in any kind of direct way was suicidal for people who were greatly outnumbered and had no political, military, economic, or other power to call upon. To get people riled up and rebellious, he contended, would simply mean more lynchings and more oppression. He urged upon his people instead the strategy of accommodating themselves to Jim Crow and working on proving their loyalty and their value as workers and producers, to gradually gain the respect of white people. Equality was to be a very long term goal, not something defiantly demanded immediately.
Not surprisingly this was a stance that many African Americans felt was incompatible with their self-respect. The man who emerged as Washington’s main rival along these lines was W.E.B. Du Bois, an early leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who respectfully but firmly criticized Washington for accepting and cooperating with a system that afforded no civil and political rights to African Americans.
Washington proved skillful at hobnobbing with, and gaining financial and political support from, prominent whites such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. He was invited to the White House by Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. He received honorary degrees from Harvard University and Dartmouth College.
However, Washington was not only white people’s favorite black man, but also respected and supported by the mass of African American opinion. Many ordinary African American people agreed that the only realistic path to betterment was to play by the rules, work hard, learn useful skills, and work yourself up as Washington himself had, rather than get involved in politics or futile and dangerous efforts aimed at social change.
Washington died at the young age of 59, his workaholic lifestyle having thoroughly exhausted him and driven his blood pressure to extremely high and dangerous levels.
No one denies that Booker T. Washington deserves respect for devoting his life to what he felt was the betterment of his people, and indeed for succeeding in making great advances in educational opportunities for African American people and enabling many to have the skills to work their way out of abject poverty. History has not been as kind to his accommodationist philosophy however, his willingness to “make a deal with the Devil” and cooperate with a system of brutal, humiliating racial apartheid. In time, African Americans followed the lead of figures such as Du Bois and not Washington in challenging this system.
“Booker T. Washington Biography.” Biography.com.
“Booker T. Washington Delivers the 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech.” History Matters.
“Booker Taliaferro Washington.” Africa Within.